Going Green With These Wood Alternatives
Since the 1980′s “plastic lumber” (PL) products have been coming on the market as substitutes for wood, and while these products offer certain advantages, they also have disadvantages and are not suitable for all purposes. There are several types of PL products available, and each type has its pros and cons. A quick look at the types on the market will help the homeowner pick one that is right for their job.
Recycled PL is decay-resistant, which makes it ideal for outdoor applications such as decking and play equipment where it may come in contact with soil and water. The type of plastic used most often is high density polyethylene (HDPE) recycled from milk bottles and other beverage containers. The plastic is recovered after use, cleaned, melted, mixed with UV stabilizers and sometimes tinted with coloring agents.
PL comes in several forms:
1. Plastic without additives. This product is made from HDPE and is extremely durable, but it does not have the strength of wood and may not be good for all applications. It is not advised for structural applications but is fine for decks, docks, fences, railings and so forth. When purchasing these products, be sure to look for those made with high or low-to-high density polypropylene resins. These products should be marked with “HDPE” or “HDPE/LDPE” somewhere on the packaging or on the item itself. Products made with PVC or polystyrene should be avoided, as these are not recyclable and do not decompose.
2. Plastic with wood additives. These are usually a half-and-half mixture of HDPE and wood fiber. It has a little more stiffness than all-plastic lumber, but its lower price makes it a popular choice for some applications. Early products had a fake look, but companies are now offering versions with realistic wood grain and color. It should be noted that these products are not as “green” as the all-plastic variety, since they are not easily recyclable. There is also the disadvantage of wood-related problems, since some wood is used in the product. The wood fibers are enclosed in plastic, but over a long time they may be effected by mold, mildew and staining. These problems generally occur much less than with natural wood, and the likelihood of damage can be greatly reduced by cleaning and maintenance according to the manufacturers’ instructions.
3. Plastic with fiberglass. This is the only kind of PL that is strong enough for structural applications. It consists of plastic that has been mixed with glass fibers, which adds to the cost but produces a product of superior durability. Unfortunately, this also reduces the environmental advantage, since fiberglass has been linked to respiratory ailments. Still, for certain outdoor applications where human exposure is limited and durability is the paramount concern, this might be the best choice.
While wood-plastic composites do show some relatively minor wood-related damage, in general PL offers certain advantages over ordinary wood. It is impervious to moisture, and damage such as rotting, chipping and splintering are eliminated. Graffiti can usually be removed easily, and the products require very little maintenance. PL is not a fire hazard and will not ignite from casual exposure to fire, such as an accidental spill of coals from a grill. Even if such an event happens and the coals are not removed, a fire will not result.
The use of PL instead of wood provides a long-term use for the plastics from beverage containers, which presently contribute a substantial percentage of the waste in landfills. It is true that only all-plastic PL gives the maximum environmental advantage, but all types of PL keep plastic out of the waste stream by giving it a use that extends for many years beyond its limited life as a beverage container.
While PL is generally more expensive than natural wood, its durability ensures that the expense will be more than justified by the long life of the product.